Madame Grès: Fashion’s First Minimalist
There is a short yet distinct supply of creative geniuses whose contributions are so profound they require only a surname for recognition—Balenciaga, Chanel, Saint Laurent. These are all-time greats who forever altered the way people dress, but they are not the only ones. By looking deeper, one can find other geniuses who are referenced every season by countless designers, yet possess names that the general public has no knowledge of. For reasons that remain as perplexing as they are egregious, some pioneers have been largely forgotten, relegated to the research of fashion historians and other tireless chroniclers of sartorial history. Madame Grès is one of them.
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Dubbed the mysterious Sphinx of Fashion for both her withdrawn, secretive nature and the otherworldly reserve of her clothes, Madame Grès was singular for her immense talent. She made some of the finest garments couture has ever known during a career that lasted from the early 1930s through the late 1980s. Arguably fashion’s first minimalist—although it is unlikely she would have used such a term to describe her work— she developed an aesthetic so potent through the immense output of her career that it influenced nearly every major creative talent in the garment trade to follow. Her work was the foundation upon which generations of admirers built their aesthetic.
True to her character, Grès revealed little of her personal history during her lifetime—even her death in 1993 was kept undisclosed by her only child, Anne, for more than a year. According to Patricia Mears’ exceptional book, Madame Grès: Sphinx of Fashion, Grès would often alter her date of birth (depending on who was interviewing her) and she changed her name several times during her career, making it difficult to pinpoint her origins. Laurence Benaïm, a journalist for the French newspaper Le Monde, was the first person to confirm that Madame Grès was born Germaine Emilie Krebs in the seventeenth arrondissement of Paris on November 30th, 1903—following considerable research and the unearthing of old documents. Alongside the revered fashioned journalist Cathy Horyn, Benaïm uncovered that Grès was born to a wealthy family, lending her exposure to the fine and performing arts during her childhood. At a young age, she decided she wanted to study sculpture, something regarded as wildly inappropriate for a young woman of means at that time. In response, she turned to what she must have felt was the next best thing: dressmaking. It was a loss for sculpture, but an incalculable gain for couture as she spent the rest of her life constructing her clothing in a similar fashion.
When asked about style by French writer F. Vergnaud for a 1976 article entitled Rencontre Avec Madame Grès she said, “Simplicity and elegance are never boring: you can never get enough of them, and one single detail manages to suggest that touch of gaiety only you have!” This brief statement could very well summarize Grès’ enduring philosophy on clothes: she saw simplicity not only as a way of achieving a kind of objective aesthetic purity, but as a way to allow the wearer to shine more brightly than the clothes while moving about the world with ease. It’s a radical premise considering what comes down most contemporary catwalks. Grès’ work is a testament to this commitment as she rarely used prints or other adornments, creating a language instead through structure and technique. Fluting is just one silhouette that is still identified with her today, which leads to perhaps the most important question: How did Grès’ work, both during and after her life, change the broader fashion landscape and the perceived perception of clothing?
When writing about Halston for an exhibit at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, deputy director and aforementioned fashion historian Patricia Mears said, “During the 1960s and 1970s, Grès was a revered figure as well as a formidable force in fashion.” By amplifying her swirling method of draping honed during the early phase of her career in the 1930s, Grès’s gowns were fit for “couture hippies,” as Vogue described them in 1966, leading to a resurgence of editorial coverage of her work by leading fashion magazines. As the house milliner for Bergdorf Goodman during the 1960s, Halston must have known that Grès was a master technician and one of greatest innovators of the twentieth century. She was already a legend by the tail end of the mid-century, but her louche designs hit all the right notes leading up to and through the 70s, and inspired many up-and-comers, Halston being the most notable.
Like Grès, Halston had a taste for the achingly simple from the start, as evidenced by his famous pillbox hat made for Jacqueline Kennedy during his early millinery career. As a member of Bergdorf Goodman’s team at the time, he would have been exposed to the finest couture of the era and Madame Grès’ sensuously sparse clothes no doubt drew his eye. Though, as Mears notes, there is only one known instance when the two designers were ever compared in the press while they were professionally active, it is clear that Halston took several important cues from Grès: his abiding use of Classical Greco-Roman-inspired silhouettes, cutting fabric as little as possible when constructing a garment, imbuing nearly every piece with a luxurious drape for dramatic flow, and a perpetual refining of established shapes to make them ever more elemental. But Halston was no copycat—during his short but prolific life, he created a unique vocabulary that would come to define an entire decade. However, it is clear from his designs that he examined the framework Grès established and utilized his unique genius to create a label whose name still resonates.
During this dynamic period, New York City became a serious international fashion capital for the first time with now iconic events like The Battle of Versailles cementing its reputation, even to Europeans. People like Calvin Klein, who founded his business in 1968, established impeccably clean oeuvres that drew on the pragmatic sportswear lineage that formed American fashion while nodding to Grès’ simplistic couture. In truth, it makes perfect sense given Grès’ own thoughts about Americans—in an article entitled Grès Matter, she said, “The Americans are wonderful to work with. American women seem to like different ideas, different shapes. They have an appreciation for sculpture. They are modern and appreciate simplicity.” With this in mind, it is no wonder that minimalism in fashion, as we understand it, sprouted from Grès and blossomed in the United States, where her clothes were always appreciated. During Mears’ research, the chief curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile (the Louvre’s costume department) noted that holdings of early Grès work in American museums vastly outnumber those in their European counterparts.
This American minimalism truly came into its own in the 1990s when Calvin Klein’s desire to strip everything back went into overdrive and encouraged numerous imitators. Who knew black pants or a slip dress could ever be so seductive? His company also fostered important young talent, notably the brilliant Narciso Rodriguez who continues to carry the minimalist banner, while Jil Sander created equally genius work in Europe that attracted just about everyone. But, as often happens, the next decade brought with it a tremendous change: Klein retired, Sander left her company for the first time (one of three departures so far), and and influential industry leader Helmut Lang exited fashion all together to pursue fine art, specifically sculpture.
If one is to look closely at the fashion of the past few years, it becomes clear that contemporary design has a strong resemblance to many of the fashions found during the late 60s and 70s when Grès enjoyed a creative resurgence—and there’s a reason for that. The great powerhouses of contemporary design, like Raf Simons, Phoebe Philo and Tom Ford, were all young children during this time. Even though Philo’s look can be severe, it is often tempered with relaxed pieces like the printed silk evening pajamas Kanye West famously wore on stage. Ford has a reputation for being over-the-top sexy and glamorous, which his designs most certainly are, but the core of his work has always been built on sleek eveningwear that carries the Grès-by-way-of-Halston simplicity. And then there’s Raf, who in many ways culminates the current minimalist movement that Grès set in motion. Simons famously worked as head designer of the Jil Sander label from 2005 to 2012 and brought the brand back from the brink, making it one of the most respected and talked about names in fashion. Toward the end of his tenure there, including his last runway show, he presented what is now referred to as the ‘couture trilogy’—three shows that were inspired by the grandeur of the Golden Age of haute couture. His fascination with this period continues in his work at Calvin Klein (another label that helped define minimalism) and even though his shapes more readily reference Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga, his approach is all Grès in his determination to find the soul within their wondrous forms. Somewhere in the world there is a budding child looking at Simons in awe, planning her own path to the top of the fashion pyramid.
Madame Grès created clothes so outside of time or ethereal trends that even dedicated experts often have difficulty attributing a specific date to any given garment—it isn’t unusual for them to assign a piece a 20 year period during which it was most likely made. The grace of her designs has had one of the greatest, yet most underappreciated impacts on fashion. By elevating the simple to the sublime, she not only authored a genuinely unique aesthetic for herself, but impacted everyone from Yohji Yamamoto to the Olsen sisters of The Row. Yet so much is still unknown about this mysterious Sphinx of Fashion.